Why you need to hear Jonathan Martin preach about heaven

I’ve got issues with how people talk about heaven. It bothers me that the most popular Christian books are “proofs” of the afterlife instead of accounts of how people have lived out the kingdom of God here on Earth. Last week, part of my sermon text came from a passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to the hope of the Israelite patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises… They desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” It is one thing to live in the hope of a promise that will not be fulfilled in your lifetime; it is another thing to live in a nihilistic indifference to God’s beautiful creation because you’re ready for Him to burn it up and rapture you away. The way that my favorite podcast preacher Jonathan Martin put it in his sermon last week is that we don’t need to get ready to leave Earth and go to heaven; we need to be ready for the day that God brings heaven to Earth.

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“Without faith it is impossible to please God”

The Daily Office New Testament reading for today, Hebrews 11:1-11, includes a common proof-text for justification by faith in Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” I was a little surprised by how the sentence finishes out: “For whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Then when I looked at the Greek, I discovered that the Greek word for God, theos, wasn’t even there: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι. I think the translators inserted God because the previous verse includes God after the same verb: εὐαρεστηκέναι τῷ θεῷ. But technically speaking, verse 6 should read: “Without faith, it is impossible to be pleasing.” So I thought I would narrate my journey of trying to explore what in the world this commonly quoted line really means. Continue Reading

Word, life, light: the eternal side of Christmas

I decided to do something different for my LifeSign sermon this weekend. Normally for Christmas, we look at the accounts of Christ’s birth given in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism rather than his birth. John describes Jesus’ incarnation from His eternal perspective as the Word of God who became flesh. Part of John’s opening is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, John 1:5, which says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not seize it.” Since there’s a lot of darkness in our world right now with school shootings and fiscal cliffs in the news, I felt called to preach on John 1:1-5 about the hope that is established by the incredible eternal identity of the baby who was born in Bethlehem. I will summarize my message below. Here is the audio: Continue Reading

Review: The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

The Awakening of Hope, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, is a breath of fresh air in a time when American Christians are in need of hope. We’ve been through a bitter election season. War continues to rage in the Middle East. The problems of our government seem intractable. Wilson-Hartgrove’s book offers what I would call an incarnational catechesis to tell us how to live as people of hope. Rather than talking about Christian doctrine in the abstract, he organizes his catechesis as the explanation of different spiritual disciplines, offering a “corrective to our belief-only Christianity,” as Shane Claiborne writes in the foreword. Continue Reading

Strength vs. integrity: a Biblical response to the presidential debate

What I learned from last night’s final presidential debate (which was the first one I watched) is that the way you “win” mostly has to do with how long you can talk without taking a breath or how willing you are to yell “Liar, liar, pants on fire” while the other guy is in the middle of what he’s saying. The fundamental thing Romney and Obama agreed on is the importance of projecting strength in US foreign policy. “Strength” seems to be defined as not apologizing for anything the US has done in the past and making sure that other nations understand that the US knows what’s best for them. I realize we live in a secular nation-state, but I am really bothered by how thoroughly un-Biblical that way of thinking is. Whether or not it’s effective foreign policy from a realpolitik perspective, the Bible calls us to integrity, not strength.

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Bad things happen: I will hope in God

We had a memorial service tonight for September 11th at Burke United Methodist Church. It was perhaps the most meaningful event I’ve ever attended that had something to do with 9/11. It wasn’t grandiose or fancy in any way. Maybe 30-40 people attended. About a dozen different people shared testimony and each of them had something completely different to say. Continue Reading

My Soul Languishes for Your Salvation: Monster-Psalm Meditation #11

Psalm 119:81-88
My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word.
My eyes fail longing for your word, saying, When will you comfort me?
For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke; yet I do not forget your statutes.
How many are the days of your servant? When will you judge my persecutors?
The arrogant dug pits for me, which are not according to your Torah. Continue Reading

Waiting is our Hope — Easter on Holy Saturday

Sermon for Holy Saturday, 4/23/2011
Text: Romans 8:18-28

How many of you know the musical “Bye Bye Birdie”? We performed it in middle school. One of the songs is called “Put on a happy face.” I used to sing it to my son Matthew as my personal coping mechanism whenever he used to cry as a toddler: “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face; brush off the clouds and cheer up, put on a happy face. Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy, it’s not your style; you’ll look so good that you’ll be glad ya’ decided to smile!” It’s kind of a good song for Easter; what do you think? Easter is here so it’s time to stop being sad – just put on a happy face! Isn’t that what Easter’s about? I’m not so sure…

How many of you have had friends who are a bit too sunny when you’re down in the dumps? And when you try to vent about your problems, they tell you to take off the gloomy mask of tragedy and pick out a pleasant outlook. Did you ever want to slap the smiles off of their faces? I’ve had friends like that. I’ve also found that holidays can be like insufferably cheery friends. It’s not okay to be sad on a special day because you bring others down, and nobody wants to hang out with a downer.

Well tonight we’re celebrating Easter even though it’s not official till tomorrow morning. But it’s also Holy Saturday, the only full day that Jesus spent in the grave. This gives us a unique opportunity to let our celebration have a double-meaning. We know that Jesus has conquered death and won the final victory over Satan, but His kingdom is not yet fully established on Earth as it is in heaven. Theologians call this the “already but not yet” paradox of Christianity.

On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and victory over death gives us the basis for having hope in the future and in whatever is beyond the future. As Christians, we live every day in the reality of Easter, in the hope that was established by Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. But we cannot let Easter make us think that God is done with the world and there’s no point in trying to make it a better place. We also live in Holy Saturday, in a day when the world is still fallen, when the king of the universe is still not recognized as Lord of all, when many people throughout the world still live in despair and shouldn’t be scolded for not feeling God’s presence in their lives.

Without Holy Saturday, Easter is a slap in the face to those whose lives have made it hard to say hallelujah. Without the solidarity of Jesus’ suffering and death, His resurrection is something for the happy people to dance to. Thus we should celebrate not only the resurrection of Jesus, but also the cross and even the grave of Jesus, because when we accept the combination of these three moments in one eternal reality, it helps us make peace with the fact that we’re still waiting for God to put a hallelujah in our hearts. As our scripture tonight, I picked Romans 8:18-28 in which Paul names and validates what it’s like to wait for God’s deliverance.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Holy Saturday is about hope. We know what God has started because of the death and resurrection of His Son. It’s because God reached out to us in Christ that we are no longer tone-deaf to the groans of creation around us. The hope that we have in Jesus’ resurrection awakens us to our call to transform the world and thus is the beginning to the end of creation’s “bondage to decay.” God is gracious enough to let us take part in His abolition of decay and the establishment of His kingdom. That’s what the hope is for. What has the resurrection done to our lives if it doesn’t move us to change anything about the world around us?

By raising Jesus from the dead, God proved to the world that He has the power to make all things new. God can resurrect our spirits when we’ve been through tough times. God can resurrect our broken relationships with other people. God never stops resurrecting our unfair and dead world to draw it into His freedom and glory. But there’s a difference between interpreting the events of our lives on the basis of God’s hope and pretending like everything is already perfect. Hope and denial are utterly the opposite. Denial tries to slap a fake smile on a moment in which there’s nothing to smile about. Hope faces our sad moments with integrity knowing that we cannot hope “for what we already have.” Denial pretends that the future is under control. Hope doesn’t claim to know the future; it simply trusts that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” It often takes a lifetime to learn how to trust God like that, but Paul seems to be saying that impossible situations actually bless us by forcing us to hope.

I want to tell you a story about hope. I have spent a lot of time in the past week visiting the Trauma ICU at Fairfax hospital where Nick Franca is lying in bed on a ventilator fighting for his life. Nick’s girlfriend Kelly has taught me about hope. She’s been sitting by his side singing to him, praying for him, and rubbing his hand. I don’t think she’s in denial about the grim reality she faces. She’s just taking each moment at face value. When you see hope like that, it makes you want to fight tooth and nail against anyone or anything that would dare to snuff it out. Hope like that causes people to do heroic things. But it’s hard to get hope like that without staring straight into the face of despair. We do not hope when we’ve analyzed the circumstances and think that a positive outcome is likely. Hope only comes to us when we’re out of other options. We hope because we must!

To those of us who have never been put in a situation where all we have is hope, the fact that Jesus came back from the dead might mean something. It’s something we’re supposed to believe in – a concept, a doctrine, a pious-sounding thing to say. But to people who have to hope because they’re without other options, Jesus’ resurrection means everything. It means that God really can reverse the course of human events. It means that Nick Franca will walk and live and breathe in a body free of cancer whether that happens a month from now or when we all join our resurrected Savior in glory. It means that there will come a point in time when all of our tears will be dried and all things in creation are reconciled to the God whose love reigns over them.

When people live in this hope, they refuse to accept the ugly realities of a fallen world. They refuse to accept racism; they refuse to accept poverty; they refuse to accept dictatorships. When Wael Ghonim got a band of people together to protest the government in Tahrir Square in Cairo, he looked about as naïve as Noah building an ark in the desert. But then it rained. The hope made more hope and more hope and the floodgates couldn’t hold it back. Only God knows what will happen in Egypt and Syria and Libya and the rest of the Middle East. Only God knows all the twists that will take place in the story of His redemption of the world between now and the end of time. But one thing’s for sure: we can put our hope in God not because we know what’s going to happen but because God has raised our Savior from the dead. We live in Holy Saturday; it’s blasphemous to what hope means to deny that reality, but the more that we put our hope in the Lord who will deliver us, the more that we will see the Easter dawn of God’s kingdom pushing up over our horizon.

Pain and Seeing the Face of God

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #1, 3/12/2011
Text: Psalm 42

Last week, we talked about being on the mountaintop with Jesus. Now, during Lent, we will be walking with Him through the valley to the cross. There are many aspects to the journey that Christ took to the place called Calvary where he was crucified – he dealt with pain, fear, betrayal, saying goodbye to loved ones, feeling like His own Father had abandoned Him. This first week, we will be talking about pain. I wanted to share a psalm that speaks about this journey of pain. Some of you might be familiar with Psalm 42 because it’s been made into a very beautiful hymn. But despite the beauty of the hymn, it is first and foremost a psalm about walking in pain. As a project in my Hebrew poetry class a year ago, I wrote my own translation of this psalm so here it is:

Like a deer longs for gushing water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God – When will I enter, and be seen by the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night while I hear all day long: “Where is your God?” These things let me remember and pour before me, O my soul: how I used to rush through the multitude, marching to the house of God, with their ringing cries and songs of thanksgiving – the pandemonium of a great festival. Why do you melt, O my soul, and stir disquiet within me? Hope in God, for yet again I will praise the one whose face is salvation – My God!

My soul melts within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan and the Great Mountain, from this humble hill. Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfall, as it crashes and sweeps over me. By day, the Lord will direct His goodness, so that by night, His song will stay with me, a prayer to my living God. Let me say to God, my Rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I walk in darkness while my enemy oppresses me?” In the splitting of my bones, my enemies taunt me, saying all day long, “Where is your God?” Why do you melt, O my soul and stir disquiet within me? Hope in God, for yet again I will praise the one whose face is salvation – My God!

In our journey of coming to know God, pain is an enemy that taunts us, especially when it’s pain that doesn’t make any sense. If I go to the gym and feel pain, then I can make sense of it. I can say this hurts and that means progress. But what about pain that just is, that doesn’t have a purpose or even a diagnosis? My mother suffers from something called fibromyalgia. It causes her joints to ache like she has the flu. She never sleeps well at night, which only makes it worse during the daytime. It’s hard to make pain like that fit into how we understand God’s plan for our lives. Pain like that is an enemy that mocks us, saying, “Where is your God?” If your God loves you, then how do you explain me, your pain?

We don’t know the exact nature of the pain that the psalmist describes in this poem, whether the “splitting of the bones” is literal or symbolic. What we do know is that this pain was real enough for the psalmist to feel forgotten by God. She remembers a time when she could rush through the multitudes rejoicing on their way to the house of God. But now her bones are splitting inside of her; now her soul is melting. The Hebrew word for soul is nefesh, which literally means “throat,” or the breath within our throats that means we’re alive. A breath that is melting is a throat that has been dried out by suffering. The reason this psalmist is longing for God like a deer longs for water is because she has no water left in her throat. She is struggling even to breathe. Her tears have become her food.

But despite this desperate condition, the psalmist has decided that all will be well if she can just see the face of God. I think it’s important to name the fact that having a faith like that is an act of rebellion. The psalmist does not give reasons to justify her hope in God; in fact she gives all the reasons why it makes no sense to hope in God and why it seems like God has forgotten her. But she rebels against these reasons as her bones split, as her pain taunts her, and she decides that as long as she has a breath, she will use it to defy her pain and, despite the fact that it makes no sense, declare her hope in God and praise the One whose face is salvation.

What keeps the psalmist alive is her quest to see the face of God, but what does this really mean? The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talks about the difficulty of truly seeing the face of another person. We think it’s pretty straightforward to look at someone else’s face. But in the world, we all wear masks, and it’s hard to see the face beneath the mask. When we look at other people, we see what they think they’re supposed to show us, whatever part the world has taught them to play. Most of us have shown our true faces to very few people if any, because to show your face to another person leaves you vulnerable to teasing, criticism, or even betrayal. So can you imagine standing face to face with God Himself, knowing that you would see in His eyes the knowledge of every shameful thing you have ever thought or done? Most ancient people were so terrified by this thought that they assumed nobody could see the face of God and live. And yet the hope that carries the psalmist through her pain is the thought of seeing God face to face.

As Christians, we believe that God has shown the world His true face through Jesus Christ. As Jesus tells His disciples in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” But we don’t see God’s face fully in Jesus’ teachings or even His miracles. His powers might impress us and His teaching might be profound, but these alone would not take away the terror of facing the judge of the universe. None of what Jesus did would make God’s face any less threatening without the pain that He suffered on the cross. But the cross proves that God was not willing to sit back on His throne and frown at us from a distance; He was so moved by our pain and the loneliness we feel behind our many masks, that He could not hold Himself back from coming into our world in the form of Jesus and suffering with us. That’s literally what the word compassion means – to suffer with. Jesus made Himself the most completely vulnerable that He could have to the point of being nailed naked to a cross and suffering the most pain He possibly could have, all so that we would stop being afraid to take off our masks and see the face of God.

Jesus’ strategy for saving the world is pretty bizarre – to come to Earth and be helpless. That approach makes no sense to worldly wisdom, which is built upon solutions and explanations and efficiency. But what Jesus models for us on the cross is actually the best way to respond to the pain of people we love. When you’re in pain, you do need helpful people who come along in their lab coats bringing helpful things like ice chips or morphine drips and giving you helpful things to do like pills to take and exercises to perform. But what your soul really needs when it’s melting away and you feel like a desperate deer with splitting bones and a dry throat is someone to be helpless with you. It’s difficult to learn how not to be helpful when you’re with people who are suffering, but sharing in their helplessness is the rawest form of companionship that you can provide.

God doesn’t want anyone to live in pain, but those who have experienced the helplessness of deep pain have something important to teach us if we want to learn true compassion – how to suffer with others. The body of Christ is not a place for successful people who have never suffered; the world has plenty of clubs for people like that. We follow a Messiah who chose the helplessness of pain to create a safe place for people who suffer pain to share their helplessness with each other. Somehow it is by standing in this shared helplessness that we see the face of God and prepare ourselves to spend eternity in His loving arms.